June 12-23, 2008
Avignon was our base for the first 5 nights of our tour. The cities most famous landmarks are of course the Palace of the Popes and the Benezet Bridge. The Palace of the Popes was used as the residence of the Pope for almost 100 years. It is quite large because as new popes were elected they added on what they wanted. There is an abundance of history and artifacts to explore. Only a small part of the 12th century Benezet Bridge, made famous by the nursery rhyme (Sur le pont d'Avignon), remains today. You are still able to walk the bridge and visit the small chapel. Some other highlights of Avignon: The covered market, the Angladon-Dubrujeaud Museum (works by Cezanne, van Gogh, Picasso, etc.), The Petit Palais Museum featuring Italian painting and sculpture.
From Avignon we visited the following:
l'Isle-sur-la-Sorgues during the Sunday market. This market fills the entire town and you can find everything from food to second hand vendors. The highlight was that each of us was given a card with a specific food written in French that we had to translate and purchase in the market. We took all of our purchases and had a picnic near the river. It turned out very well. We had a buffet of pastries, olives, cheese, bread and wine.
Les Baux (pronounced Lay Bo)-This is a classic Provincial hill town that has ancient Roman ruins. The streets are cobblestone and narrow. If you have the energy you can make the hike to tour the ruins at the top of the hill. I explored a few of the little churches and did a little shopping. Near Les Baux is a unique experience called the Cathedrale de Images. It is an old quarry and inside on the walls they have a picture show coordinated with music. Each year is a different theme and this year is the works of van Gogh. It is hard to explain, but even if you are not a fan of his work it is incredibly moving.
Some other highlights: We had a wine tasting in the famous Chateauneuf-du-Pape wine region; had dinner in a family owned French country manor-Chateau du Martinet, toured the Abbey of St. Michel de Frigolet; had a private tour of a French Castle-Chateau La Barben; explored the mysterious "Boriesâ€ settlement near Gordes www.gordes-village.com The Bories date back to the time of the Ligurians. These traditional dwellings are built of stone without mortar. The last inhabitants abandoned it at the beginning of the 19th century; we visited the Pont du Gard (an ancient Roman aqueduct) and explored the towns of St. Remy de Provence, Roussillon, and Fountaine de Vaucluse. We also visited a local fig grower where the owner gave us a tour of his property and explained the different varieties of figs. We then sampled the products and had a picnic lunch.
We stayed in Aix-en-Provence for 3 nights. Once the capital of Provence is today home to approximately 30,000 international university students. Romans were drawn to Aix because of it thermal baths. Today the streets and squares are marked with ornate fountains fed from these springs. Aix is also famous for being the home of Paul Cezanne. His workshop has been completely preserved and is open for tours-but you must reserve well in advance! We of course did and the visit was a highlight for many.
Some more Aix highlights include: the grand boulevard Cours Mirabeau, the Champs-Elysees of Provence, lined with vibrant cafes including the famous Aux Deux Garcons. This cafe was a favorite of Paul Cezanne and is still the place to see and be seen. The Musee Granet is Aix's top art gallery featuring works of Cezanne, Rubens, and David. The Cathedrale St Sauveur has a unique architecture with a double nave-one Romanesque and the other Gothic. It is worth a trip inside. For the shoppers in the bunch Aix has great markets-the Saturday markets are the best.
From Aix we visited the following:
Marseille and Cassis on the Mediterranean coast. We took a short boat trip form Cassis to view the calanques. These narrow fjord like inlets and rocky cliffs are a haven for sun bathers, hikers and rock climbers. We stopped briefly at the Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene where you are able to visit the crypts and see relics of the saint-including her head. We toured the family run winery Chateau de L'Aumeraude. This area of Provence is famous for their white and rose wines. We had a wine tasting and lunch with the owners. We toured the Fragonard perfumery in Grasse where we learned all about the process of making perfume. It was actually very interesting. I didn't know there were so many different levels of perfume! Did you know that there is a very elite group of about 50 odd people in the entire world referred to as a "Noseâ€ who develop the scents we wear? They can recognize over 3000 raw scents and work in a special laboratory called on organ.
Nice was our last stop so we stayed in the city for a few days. Nice has some notable museums: Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse. I visited the Chagall museum which is a must for art lovers. Chagall himself designed the museum and his wishes on how the art is displayed have remained in tact. Henri Matisse called Nice home from 1917 until his death in 1954. He is buried beneath an olive tree outside the Cimiez cemetery. The Matisse museum is a small collection of the artists work from original paintings to book illustrations. There is also a series of photos capturing the artist at work. The museum is housed in a 17th century villa in the Cimiez neighborhood. There is also a Russian Cathedral which is the finest outside of Russia and the most visited sight in Nice. The cathedral was built by Czar Nicholas II before his assassination in 1918. There is quite a bit of Russian history in Nice. In the late 19th century there were about 500 Russian families that called Nice home during the winter -including the royal family. Only about 60 remain to maintain the massive cathedral. Because of the cost involved you do have to pay a small fee to enter. But, plan your time because you cannot enter during services.